U of C could lose Argonne lab

  • Medill News Service
  • January 26, 2006 @ 10:15 PM
Three weeks after the U.S. Dept. of Energy announced it would open bidding for rights to run Argonne National Laboratory, near Lemont, potential contractors met Thursday at the nearby Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to discuss the competition.

This marks the first time the University of Chicago has been at risk of losing the management and operations contract of the 60-year old lab. The bidding here follows a string of open bids at other national facilities, as mandated by a 2003 federal law.

The energy department, which funds and oversees the lab, called the meeting to lay the groundwork for the bids to be submitted this spring.

The Dept. of Energy won't know who is officially submitting a proposal for Argonne until the final draft of the proposal documents are issued in late February, said energy department attorney Steven Silbergleid, chairperson of the board that reviews applications. Then, interested parties will have 45 days to submit bids on the contract.

Many of the attendees at the meeting were prospective sub-contractors hoping to get a piece of the available contract.

For instance, representatives from Des Plaines-based Gas Technology Institute, part of the research and development arm of the natural gas industry, attended the meeting Thursday in the hopes of partnering with the University of Chicago or another leading bidder.

"We've always done work with the Dept. of Energy," said Glen A. Rasmussen, a consulting partner with Gas Technology Institute. "We're trying to get more involved in other Dept. of Energy operations."

The University of Chicago holds a reputation as a world-class research institution. More than 100 researchers hold joint appointments at the university and protean lab, which specializes in energy research and utilizes the nation's most powerful x-ray technology.

"The University of Chicago has always had an outstanding record of science," Donald Joyce, deputy lab director at Argonne, said after the meeting. "Argonne is a very important part of the university. It's an important part of the entire research world."

One of the arguments in favor of the University of Chicago's bid is its traditionally low operating costs. The Dept. of Energy is requiring bidders keep their annual fees under $5.8 million.

"It's a very lean operation in terms of overhead cost, but there's always room for improvement," Joyce said. "No one can remain static."

The University of Chicago has already beefed up its bid by adding sub-contractors like Virginia-based BWX Technologies, Inc., a nuclear facilities operator, and California-based Jacobs Engineering Group. The University of Chicago also points to close relationships with researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois where scientists also make use of Argonne's facilities.

University of Chicago's current contract expires Sept. 30.

Dept. of Energy officials said Thursday that even if the University of Chicago submits the only bid, it is still beneficial to go through the competitive process, which often results in a new teaming of partners.

"Any incumbent contractor has an inherent advantage," said Silbergleid. "Does that mean that they win? No. We try to level the playing field by putting out all the information."

The federal Office of Science's Web site for proposals lists almost 30 potential contractors and sub-contractors for Argonne. But it wouldn't be far-fetched if the University of Chicago offered the only proposal.

That's what happened last year when the University of California was the only organization to bid on continued operation of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at Berkeley.

On the other hand, retaining rights to run Los Alamos National Laboratory wasn't so easy for the University of California, which saw fierce competition from Lockheed Martin and the University of Texas. Ultimately, University of California remained on the team, but with much of the leadership in the hands of Bechtel Group, an engineering conglomerate.